Message 10, Whatever Happened to Sin?:
As long as people have a low view of sin and the law of God, they will be unable to grasp their enslavement to the darkness of rebellion against our Creator. Seeing the true glory of the gospel requires us to see the darkness through which it shines in all its fullness. In this session, Dr. Russell Moore helps turn us away from a low view of sin and God’s law, reminding us of the heinousness of sin so that we might see the riches of divine grace.
Well, would you turn your Bibles to Luke 3, Luke 3, and while you’re turning there, let me tell you what a joy it is to be here. I have such esteem and admiration for this ministry. As a matter of fact, my wife and I very early in our ministry went to a Ligonier conference in Memphis, I believe it was 1995, at one of the most difficult times in my life when I was wondering if I was would even stay in ministry. And that conference was one of the ways that the Lord ministered to us keeping us in ministry, and encouraging us forward as we were there talking about the providence of God. So it’s from a grateful heart that I’m here with you today.
Luke 3. I’d like for us to start reading with verse 2, and read on down through verse 18, Luke 3:2-18. And since these words are breathed out by the Holy Spirit, and come with the authority of God Himself, would you please stand with me, out of reverence for the reading of the words of our God.
The Holy Spirit says through Luke, “During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the Word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked places shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers asked him, ‘And what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’
And as the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”
And so with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
May God bless His Word, you may be seated.
This guy wanted to talk to me about Calvinist dating sites for Reformed singles. And at the time, I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. But as he was explaining it to me apparently it’s the sort of site you can go on just like any other singles or dating site except instead of just specifying what age of person you’re looking for and what sort of hobbies you’re looking for, you specify how many points, you know. Whether or not somebody’s young earth, or documentary hypothesis — or framework hypothesis, or, whatever, it’s just this lengthy list of theological qualifications.
And he’s asking me about whether or not I thought this was a good thing and for a few minutes, I was a little disoriented because this was someone I didn’t know, he was from a different denominational background than mine, he was from a different state than I was in, and we were having a conversation for the very first time, in fact, for the only time. And it was all just a blur of all of these questions about theological topics that seemed very abstract to him (the impassability of God), along with these ethical questions. But something about this particular question about the dating sites, seemed not to be so abstract to him. It was almost as though he had given a great deal of thought to this, which I found odd since apparently he was married.
And then in a few minutes in this winding conversation it became even more clear that that’s exactly where the problem was. He started walking through and talking about the very difficult situation that he was in in his marriage. And he started talking through what he saw as the Biblical grounds for divorce and for remarriage, and he was making the case from the exception clauses in Matthew and in 1 Corinthians, as to why it looked like his marriage probably wasn’t going to be salvageable, but why he thought that he fit within this exception clause, because of the situation with his wife. Which he counted as fitting into what the Apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7, as the abandonment by an unbelieving spouse. Except, that I didn’t really understand this because it didn’t seem to me from his conversation, as though his wife wanted to leave, and it also didn’t seem to me that his wife was an unbeliever.
But he kept talking about how they were unequally yoked in their marriage, even though both of them were professing Christians, but because they had differing levels of spiritual maturity. And he started talking about how she was not responding well to his spiritual leadership. That she didn’t respond well to their family devotional times because she just didn’t understand the rich theology of the Word of God. She didn’t understand why she shouldn’t be watching these television programs that were awful, and filled with immoral things. She didn’t get that. She didn’t — she wasn’t able to lead their children the way that he wanted to lead their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And he says, you know, and we just have these ongoing theological skirmishes.
And he immediately started to move onto another theological topic but I was interested in that, and I said, “Well, tell me what sort of theological skirmishes do you and your wife have?” And he said, “Well, one of the main ones is over the issues of Christian liberty and alcohol.” I said, “OK. Well, tell me how that debate happens in your home.” He said, “Well, she just becomes very angry and mad at my position on Christian liberty and alcohol.” I said, “Well, when does that typically happen?” He said, “Well, it typically happens whenever I exercise my Christian liberty when it comes to alcohol.”
I said, “OK, well walk me through a scenario. What does that look like?” He said, “Well when I get home from work, I like a little nip of Wild Turkey.” He said, “And then usually as the night goes on I’ll have a 12-pack or so of beer there, and I’ll drink that until I go to sleep.” Now, I’m a Southern Baptist so I don’t have expertise in this, I understand.
But I’ve been listening to country music since I was in utero. So I know, that a 12-pack of beer until you pass out, is drunk. I don’t care who you are.
And I said, “Well, let’s start talking about this issue of drunkenness.” And he became very agitated and said, “I’ve never been drunk. This isn’t an issue of drunkenness, and you’re starting to sound like my wife.”
Now, he wanted to move on to all of these other theological topics and I was amazed by the whole conversation and immediately what I did after I left him was to call a pastor friend of mine and say, “You won’t believe how deluded and self-deceived this guy is.” But the more I thought about it, the more I realized, that is exactly the same situation that I am so often in. Not with a 12-pack of beer.
But with protecting myself and protecting my own aspect and avenue of sin. And protecting it with whatever I have, including with theological justifications. This man was able to think very deeply about Biblical text. He was able to think very deeply about doctrinal and ethical questions, but he wasn’t able to see what seemed obvious to me. In terms of the sin in his own life. That is not an unusual situation. That is the state that the Scripture says that all of fallen humanity is in. That is what we need to be delivered from.
And as we think about the way that the flesh and the world work together in sin, we must remember that the gospel tells us that the Lord Jesus came not only to deliver us from the power of the world, and not only to atone and to cleanse us from sin, but also, John tells us, to destroy the works of the Devil. And that’s in the background here as Luke is telling us, in Luke 3, about what it means for John as the prophet of God, to stand and to deliver a message about sin. About righteousness. About judgement. To a group of people who like all of us apart from Christ, are seeking to protect themselves, from the searching questions that come from God: “Adam, where are you? What have you done?”
Jesus will, in the very next chapter, find Himself being tempted by the Devil. Triumphing over the temptations of the Devil. And John here as he preaches, John here as he calls for repentance, John here as he points to Christ, is also engaging in spiritual warfare. Because the Devil works, the Bible tells us, in two ways: The Devil works in deception, and the Devil works in accusation. The Devil is the liar from the beginning. Jesus says in John 8, he is the deceiver of the whole world, and he is also the one, John tells us in Revelation 12, who is the accuser of the brothers.
If we are going to recover and to preach, and to teach, and to counsel an understanding of sin as revealed in Scripture, we will have to hit at both of those strategies.
And that’s exactly what John does in this text. He deals with this issue of deception. Now, Scripture says here that John as a prophet has received a revelation from God, the Word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, and John here is speaking first of all of a vision of God coming from the prophet Isaiah, of this voice that is crying out in the wilderness. Of a day, of a future when the kingdom of God will overshadow and overcome all of the rival kingdoms. And he calls and speaks in light of that, for repentance to break through this way that the people he is talking to are hiding from the voice of God. And notice they are hiding behind different things.
John here speaks to the religious leaders, to the Pharisees particularly, who are hiding behind their sense of themselves, as the people of God. Don’t say for yourselves that you are children of Abraham. God can raise up from these stones, children of Abraham. He’s reminding them that Abraham himself did not stand before God on the basis of his biological lineage. Abraham stood before God as one who was called out of the nations. ‘Abram.’ He says don’t hide behind that. But he’s also speaking to those who are tax collectors. To those who are collaborators with Rome. To those who are obviously to some, in sin, and those who are not obviously in sin. He is breaking — through the Word and by the Spirit — the power of deception.
That is the Word that we have been given. There is always the temptation for the Christian church to assume that we are going to be able to reach people without addressing the issue of sin. That we will be able to reach people without addressing the issue of judgement. That we will be able to reach people if we will deal with every other sin and aspect of judgement than whatever seems to be too fashionable to address at the time.
If we do that, the problem for us is not just that we are communicating something less than the whole counsel of God, although that’s true. The problem is that we are empowering the Devil. We are empowering the deception. If we leave consciences including our own consciences untroubled with the Word of God, uninterrogated by the Word of God, we are helping to do the work of the Devil for him. Because we pattern our minds after whatever seems to be noticeable by us at the time.
I was in a church one time preaching through 1 Corinthians in a conference and we came to that section in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Corinthians 7 talking about sexual immorality, and talking about how if a man does not know how to act towards his betrothed, let them marry. It is better to marry than to burn with passion. And so I was talking through that, and just as an aside, as a point of application, I said, “You shouldn’t put yourself in a place of temptation with these endlessly long engagements, while you’re trying to get everything together for some special wedding ceremony. You find that person, and then with all due speed, protect yourself by marrying.”
It was just an aside, but after the service was over there was a couple who came up with their grown son and his fiancé, and they were really upset about it. And they talked about — “You said that, but that’s really kind of legalistic, because Chad and Tina here, they’ve been engaged for a long time and they’ve been dating for a long time before that, and they’re waiting until he gets finished with his graduate school, until she gets finished with her graduate program, and they want to get settled in their jobs, and they want to get settled in their careers, and your saying that, is not a helpful thing to say.”
And I said, “Well, you know, you may be right. And maybe I spoke that with an undue authority here, because I don’t think the Bible gives a particular length of betrothal, or engagement necessarily, I was just giving a principle,” I said, “And there’s an exception to all sorts of things.” I said, “I just think in this case, we ought to just thank God that in the case of Chad and Tina, that by the power of the Spirit, God has preserved Chad and Tina from the sin of fornication. Right, Chad?” Now, I haven’t been invited back there since. But it was clear in that moment that it was a scarier prospect for these parents of a grown son — it was scarier for them that their son might not make it in American society, than the fact that their son might be a fornicator.
If we do not have the Word of God coming to us from the outside. Not the Word of God that we are preparing for ourselves, but the Word of God that is confronting us in areas that we are not choosing, we are not going to be equipped to do the battle against the world, the flesh and the Devil, because we will not hear that prophetic message that is able to break through the places where we are deceiving ourselves and where we are being deceived.
That’s why this message that John is preaching is a message that is met initially with anger and with dismay, and it ought always to be met by us in our sinfulness, initially with anger and with dismay.
Someone asked the question yesterday in the panel time, “Can someone reject the authority of Scripture, and be a Christian?” And that’s a good question. But in one sense, every single one of us as sinners, we are ongoingly rejecting the authority of Scripture. What it means to live a whole life of repentance is to constantly be asking, “What in the Scripture do I not want to hear?” As I come to the text of the Bible, as I’m reading the Word of God, I am asking myself, “What in this text do I not want to believe?” Because if we don’t know the answer to that question, it means that we are not having the Word of God diagnose us in our sinfulness. If all the Word of God speaks to you is how wrong you used to be prior to conversion, or if all the Word of God speaks to you is how wrong the culture around you is, or how wrong the people that you are witnessing to are, then you are not encountering the force of the Word of God that comes to every single sinner saying, “Turn from yourself, and be conformed to Christ.”
I found myself one time years ago as I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount, doing to the Sermon on the Mount in my own mind, what a feminist does with 1 Timothy 2. “Well, it can’t mean that.”
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” I wanted to resist Jesus’ teaching about mercy, about forgiveness. Because I wanted to nurture in my own heart, something that I wanted to protect from the Word of God. Unless the Word of God is coming at you with prophetic force, breaking through that deception, then you are not going to see what is happening in your own life. And as we carry out The Great Commission, if we are not able to address the deception that is behind sin, including when addressing that — is going to mean that the people we are talking to are going to initially be very angry with us — then we do not have a gospel for the nations, we have an almost gospel for the nations. And an almost gospel, doesn’t raise a corpse.
Universalism — the idea that God’s judgement will not come upon sin, has everywhere in every era, not only destroyed the church doctrinally, it has emptied out the church. And why? Because a universalist understanding that says that God’s judgement is not coming, is not believable. The people that we are speaking to have consciences that testify and show them, Paul says in Romans 2, of a judgement that is to come. If we come with a universalism or with a targeted, surgical strike universalism, that will leave alone one set of sins, then it is not only that we are being unfaithful, it is that the people to whom we are speaking will know that we are being unfaithful. They will know that this is not a transcendent Word.
John comes and is breaking deception by speaking strongly about the commands of God, strongly about the command of repentance. And as he is doing so, what is happening is that the light is breaking through. The light that is not some gauzy sentimental concept in Scripture — light is an act of war. Jesus says that the light has come into the world, and men hate the light and love the darkness because their deeds are evil.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4, that the light of Christ shines in the darkness, breaking the power of the god of this age. As we are addressing the issue of deception in our own hearts ongoingly, and as we are calling to repentance and dealing with sin, even in those areas that we would rather leave untroubled, the light is going forward and that is initially painful. We should not be surprised by that.
Jesus, every time that He is being well-received in the gospels, almost always, turns around and clarifies: “You don’t understand what I’m talking about.” When He’s well-received in His hometown synagogue, they are marveling at the glorious words that are coming from His mouth, Jesus turns around and says, “Let me say this to you,” and indicts them in their fallenness, to the point that their reaction is to attempt to throw him off of the precipice of His town.
When Jesus is being well-received by the crowds and the multitudes are finally gathering, they’re finally hearing the message of the Kingdom of God, Jesus stands up and says to a group of people who have been reared since they were infants to believe that they should avoid blood per the Levitical law, and they should avoid those things that are dead — Jesus says to them, “Unless you chew on my skin, and drink my blood, you can have no life in you.” And the crowds assume, this is not what we signed up for. And start to evaporate.
The power that breaks through the deception of the Devil is a Word that is coming from God that is seen, not only in the fact that it is truthful, not only in the fact that it is verified by its own testimony and its own witness, but also because it is a Word that we would never have constructed for ourselves. Breaks through the power of deception.
But that’s not the Devil’s only power. The Devil’s other power is that of accusation.
I spend a lot of time working in the issue of human dignity as it relates to the abortion question. Working against the sort of culture that we’re in now, that says that unborn human children are not worthy of protection in life.
I read an article several years ago that — it stays with me constantly, because this article was by a person who works in an abortion clinic, who said, “You know, most people assume that the typical young woman coming in to receive an abortion, is a secularist, who denies the humanity of the unborn child.” She said, “But that’s not who I see in my clinic.” She said, “I don’t see people coming in and talking about clumps of cells and masses of tissue.” She said, “I don’t hear anyone talking about autonomy of my own body.” She said, “As a matter of fact,” she said, “almost everybody that I have come in here seeking an abortion is someone who knows that this is a human being; knows that this a person; knows that this is a child.” She says, “Most of the people that I have come through here are Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants.”
She said, “And they never, as they are waiting for this abortion, justify this with all the political slogans.” She said, “The Roman Catholic patients, sometimes will even have a rosary there, and will say ‘I know this is a sin against God, and I am going to go to confession for it.’” She said, “And the Evangelical Protestants will say, ‘I know this is an awful thing and a sin against God; once saved always saved.’”
In the moment, the gospel that those people are holding to is that false gospel that the Apostle Paul talks about in Romans chapter 6: “Shall we sin all the more that grace may abound?” But in that, our consciences, that are in the process of being terrorized. No one is more pro-choice than the Devil on the way into the abortion clinic. And no one is more pro-life than the Devil on the way out of the abortion clinic. The Devil deceives us into thinking, “You shall not surely die, the law of God does not apply to us.” And then the moment that we are transgressors, he turns with the full force of the law of God written in our own consciences, and accuses us, ‘You are worthy of death.’ The power that the Devil has in sin is a power of blackmail. You know who you are, and I know who you are.
Brothers and sisters, if we do not address the issue of human sin and fallenness, if we do not explicitly call to repentance, then the problem is not just that we are leaving people in deception, moving toward judgement. But we are also leaving people in a situation of consciences that are under the burden of accusation from a Devil who says, “There is no standing for you before a Holy God.”
In order to break that power of accusation, we cannot say to people what they know is not true — “This doesn’t matter. Move beyond it.” We must speak honestly of wrath, in order to speak honestly of mercy.
This past year the Presbyterian Church USA removed the contemporary hymn In Christ Alone — or part of it — from their hymnal. The line was, that “In Christ, the wrath of God is satisfied.” And there were some in that denomination that were troubled by that line because they say we shouldn’t speak of a God who is wrathful or a God who is angry. And yet, when Christians sing a line such as that about the wrath of God, that is not a self-righteous sense of vindication over the rest of the world. That is a group of sinners confessing, “We were justly objects of God’s wrath and condemnation, because we are sinners against Him. And yet, we are found in the crucified Christ, who has received the due judgement for our sins.” That is not a line of terror, that is a line of freedom.
If we don’t understand the way that God’s mercy is not simply saying to us, “It is OK.” God’s mercy is saying to us, “If you are in Christ, you are forgiven.” So that as Paul is talking about in Romans 1, showing the horror of sin among the nations, and in Romans 2 showing the horror of sin among the people of God, and in Romans 3 showing the horror of sin for everybody, silencing every mouth — the question is: How can God be just and holy, and also be the justifier of the wicked? And in that, Paul gives us a vision of the cross where God is both merciful in sending His Son, and just in the fact that every sin is accounted for.
When we preach that, when we teach that, when we counsel that, we are freeing repentant people from the blackmail of the wicked one, who says to their consciences, “There is no way that if you were really seen to be who you really are, that you would ever really be accepted among the people of God or before the throne of God.” If we do not address that with the cross, then we will only wind up with those people so deceived, that they believe that their sins don’t require as much of the blood of Christ as other sins. Or we will wind up with those people who are in despair of saying, “How in the world can I, once everything is exposed and seen, really enter into the Kingdom of God.”
That’s why Luke tells us here something that sounds absolutely ridiculous. He says here in verse 18, “So with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.” Good news! John the Baptist, camel skin, locusts. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come?” The axe is at the root of the tree, and God’s about to cut it down, and to set it on fire. The judgement of God is coming, sending the chaff flying in the air. That does not sound like good news. That does not sound like it would be televisable on Christian TV.
But Luke speaks of it as good news; why is it good news? Because John here is addressing the consciences of those who are already guilty before God, and he is pointing “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”
If we do not address sin, and if we do not call to repentance, we will drive people into despair. The message that we have for that woman who has had the abortion, or that man who’s paid for the abortion, is not, “It doesn’t matter.” That conscience knows it matters. And if all we do is simply stand up and say, “God forgives sin,” there’re going to be so many people in our congregations who are going to assume God forgives these sorts of sins, but God doesn’t forgive this sort of sin, that I can’t even talk about to the people around me.
The message that we have is good news, because it doesn’t say that. The message of accusation that the devil brings against that woman in her conscience, is to say, “I know who you are, I know what you’ve done.” The power that she has through the gospel over accusation is not “It didn’t matter.” The power she has over accusation is to say to the Devil, “You are exactly right about me. And you are exactly right about the due penalty for sin. But what you are forgetting, is that in Christ I have already been indicted. I have already been arrested. I have already been crucified at the place of the skull under the curse of God. I have already been through the condemnation of hell.
And on a Sunday morning, in Christ, I came walking out of the tomb of the curse into the sunlight of resurrection where God has already pronounced over me what He thinks of me. And when God sees me, He does not see that woman who had the abortion. He does not see that transgressor against the law of God. He does not see someone who found a loophole into heaven. He sees someone who is crucified and raised from the dead in Christ Jesus.”
And so God’s response is exactly the same as His response to His Son, Jesus Christ. “So there is therefore now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”
That is good news. But in order for us to be a good news people, we must be the people who are looking deeply into our own sin, realizing how we are prone to wander. And those who are willing to call and to address out of love the people around us: “repent.” Not in order to be more moral, not in order to be more respectable, not in order to stop freaking us out. But in order to be reconciled to God through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is going to be met initially with opposition. And it won’t just be opposition from the outside.
If we’re preaching that prophetic Word, we will be met initially with opposition from our own hearts. Preaching is not information downloading. Preaching is expository exorcism. Preaching comes in and says, “Where am I still thinking and feeling and acting as though I were still under the domain of the Devil and breaking that with the power of the Word of Jesus Himself, who every time He speaks, the demons flee. And why do they flee? Because Jesus stands sinless and undeceivable and unaccusable. “The ruler of this world is coming,” He says, “he has no claim on me.”
If we do not speak to the deception of the Devil, we empower the Devil. And if all that we do is rail against sin, without the offer of mercy, and an explicit offer of mercy that is coming in and saying to the people who think that they are too far gone for mercy, then we are empowering the Devil. But when we stand and call sin into judgement — but we do so with the cross at the forefront, of the justice of God, and the mercy of God, of the one who is both just and the Justifier. Of the bad news that is good news. Of the kingdom that is torn down, in order for a kingdom to be built up. Then we will find that consciences will be freed. That people will cry out as we did: “Lord have mercy upon us.”
And we will be the people who deal honestly with sin. But who never stop at sin. We will be the people who say, “Over there, behold the Lamb of God. He takes away the sins of the world.
“Would you pray with me?
Lord, I pray for those of us in this room, all of us, Lord, in your presence right now, without anything in ourselves to commend us. Every single one of us in this room, Father, we deserve to be in hell right now. The only word we deserve to hear is “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” And yet, Father, we are here gathered as those who have been received in Christ as sons and daughters. Father would you keep upon our minds and our affections and our consciences, the truth that we’re crucified sinners. Would you give us the courage to fight the Devil — in our own hearts, and in our mission field around us. And Father would you give us the exuberance and the confident tranquility that comes with having a Word from our God that is good news. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.